2009/03/15

Selling constitutional compliance

At our next meetup Thursday Mar. 19 we will be discussing how to promote constitutional compliance. This is a selling job, and it has been studied under the heading of "diffusion of innovations". In the early 1950s a team at the University of Chicago investigated how effective various kinds of marketing could be and how to allocate scarce marketing resources. They found that the main way that an "innovation", whether it be a new product or a new idea, spreads through a population is by first being adopted by what they called "early adopters". It then spreads to the next level of "secondary adopters" who emulate the first adopters, then to the "tertiary adopters", quadranary adopters", and so forth. Tools like broadcast advertising could reinforce the process, but not by very much. Most influence was from person to person, down the chain of influence.

That chain is not necessarily down from the top classes of society or politics. Most decisionmakers are not early adopters, but late adopters. New ideas mostly come from outside the halls of power, and the early adopters seldom have direct contact or influence with key decisionmakers. Their ideas have to work their way up the chains of influence and reach all or most of the key decisionmakers at all levels, departments, and organizations, until a critical mass is achieved. That can be done in many ways, from writing, teaching, political pressure, litigation, or public demonstration. It can take a lot of time and money to make a difference, because you aren't operating in a vacuum. You have to compete with other demands and influences. A good idea won't get very far unless it is backed by a lot of people, and more people than back the competition.

The researchers also found that most people didn't adopt after only one exposure to an innovation. They had to be moved to adopt through a series of repeated exposures at a certain rate, each of which took them one step closer to "closing the sale". In other words, it was not a wise allocation of resources to expend too much on one prospect or try to move him too far too fast, and the best strategy was to figure out where each person was and how to move him as far as he was prepared to go on each occasion, then go away and come back later to take him another step further. There is an optimum pacing for each person. Going too fast or too slow wastes resources.

All of this was presented in a book, Diffusion of Innovations, which is summarized here.

Selling constitutional compliance, that for most people is a complex, abstract idea, is difficult, and it has to compete with other ideas that are simpler and seemingly more attractive. Most people tend to be inspired by charismatic personalities rather than ideas, especially complex ones. We can call that the "leader syndrome", because it tends to cause people to be misled into supporting the wrong people, and failing to do the hard work needed even to enable the right person to be effective.

There is also a real problem with accurately understanding the Constitution the way the Founders did. Legal scholars debate all the time how to do that. There is a popular myth that the Constitution was written to be understandable by ordinary people, but it would be better to approach the study of the Constitution like learning a foreign language. The ordinary people of the new American states in 1787 were in some ways more legally educated and sophisticated than are people today. There are also some words and phrases in it that have specialized meanings that it can take a lot of reading to deeply understand. Terms like "due process", "jury", "right", "commerce", "necessary and proper", "reasonable", and "regulate". Even the Framers of the Constitution during the Philadelphia Convention had to look up the term "ex post facto" in a legal treatise to understand what it meant.

One doesn't have to be a lawyer to understand the Constitution. Indeed, law students don't learn that in law schools. Most lawyers never get it. It is better to look to a good legal historian and linguist.

I have tried to provide the necessary study materials at the Constitution Society website. There is a lot to read there, and there are no shortcuts. You just have to read a lot, and the sooner you get started the better. Try to study a certain amount every day. Don't be misled by a lot of false prophets out there with their own half-baked legal ideas.

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